2015-08-17

If you’re as sick of the Jesus Mythicist/Historicist debate as I am . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

quote_begin If you’re as sick of the Jesus Mythicist/Historicist debate as Daniel Gullotta and I are, you’ll want to hear us on August 24th as we have the Last Great “Did Jesus Exist?” Debate EVER!David Fitzgerald, Facebook, 14th August 2015 quote_end

free-online-courses

Daniel Gullotta has more info about this on his blog. There he adds

The show will be recorded on Wednesday the 19th of August, so please have your questions submitted by then!

Submissions can be sent to his blog or the Miami Valley Skeptic’s Facebook Wall, or tweet via https://twitter.com/TheMVSkeptics

 

 

 

 


The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

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by Neil Godfrey

4evangelists-smThe genre of the gospels is an important question. Genre is an indication of the author’s intent. Does the author want to make us laugh at human foibles or weep over human tragedy, to escape into an entertaining world of make-believe, to be inspired and instructed by historical or biographical narratives, to mock establishment values, to understand and learn a philosophical idea? Authors choose the appropriate genre: treatise, satire, biography, history, novellas…. or their ancient equivalents.

Sometimes authors combine genres. We see this in the Book of Daniel where long apocalyptic passages suddenly break into the middle of gripping narrative adventure.

Another serious amateur researcher, Ben C. Smith, has posted a detailed argument for the gospels being composed as texts that were meant to complement the Jewish Scriptures in The Genre of the Gospels on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum. It’s an idea I myself have been toying with for some time so I can’t help but be a little biased in favour of his argument.

A common view among scholars today is that the Synoptic Gospels at least (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are a form of ancient biography. Ben Smith begins by taking on this popular notion by setting out the clear and distinctive differences between the Gospels and narratives of ancient lives:

Unlike most ancient “biographies” the Gospels are not reflective writings. They

  • are not written in the first person
  • do not self-consciously reflect upon the character of the main figure
  • do not as a rule reflect upon the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for writing.

Ben sets out detailed illustrations from about nine ancient Lives with readers urged to take note of this: read more »


2015-08-16

Towards Understanding Morality — a renewed start?

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by Neil Godfrey

Concluding my series on the evolution of morality as per Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. . . .

The previous posts:

  1. Towards Understanding How Morality Works
  2. Towards Understanding Morality – another step?

.

Pinker writes that over the past three centuries there has been a progression of away from communal and authoritarian values to values arising from equality-sharing and rational-legal/market-pricing concerns, that is, “toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights.” He is relying upon Fiske’s relational and evolutionary model of morality that we set out in the first post of this series.

The historical direction of morality in modern societies is not just away from Communality and Authority but toward Rational-Legal organization, and that too is a pacifying development.

(Pinker 2011, p. 637)

One of the explanations for this development, Pinker suggests, is the people’s more realistic awareness of the feelings and plights of others as a result of advances in communications and popular literature. The latter has been able to move readers to have deep sympathies for characters as representatives of classes and races that had hitherto rarely entered their awareness.

As a lay reader without my own background reading in Fiske’s analysis I can only repeat Pinker’s claim that morality has evolved away from communal relationship values in the past three centuries and do no more than register my own questions at this point. read more »


2015-08-15

Forgotten Past: Saint-Domingue, Slave States, and the Second Amendment

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by Tim Widowfield

Battle at San Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski

Battle at San Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski

In the fury that followed the murderous rampage in a South Carolina church back in June, we Americans found our attention diverted from yet another gun incident to the ubiquitous Confederate battle flag and the unhealed wounds that its presence calls to mind. And in the ensuing noisy debate, I happened to see a right-wing meme in my Facebook stream that gave me pause. It complained about what today’s schoolkids aren’t taught, and it ended with this provocative statement:

Whites were the first people to stop slavery in modern times, whereas slavery continues in Africa to this day.

Presumably, the author of this bit of copy-and-paste truthiness couched this statement with “in modern times,” because he or she knew that Chinese governments had banned slavery at least twice in ancient times. Even at that, China did not permanently free its slaves until the 1720s in the Yongzheng emancipation, and de facto slavery continued for decades.

The long road to emancipation

In fact many nations took steps, however slowly, toward abolition throughout the 18th and 19th century. We can’t be entirely sure what the author meant by “stop slavery,” but I would argue that it must encompass participation in the slave trade and the use of slaves in colonial territories; it has to include more than just the abolition of bondage in the homeland. Nor can we forget serfdom. For while we may marvel at Russia’s abolition of slavery in 1723, we must also note with dismay that its serfs weren’t freed until 1861. (See the Abolition of Slavery Timeline at Wikipedia.)

We could cite the 1777 constitution of the so-called Republic of Vermont, but the slavery ban contained therein had rather spotty enforcement. Moreover, Vermont was a “reluctant republic,” and sought absorption into the Union as soon as it could do so.

The United States itself, of course, did not eradicate slavery nationally until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Before that, several nations in the Western Hemisphere had already freed their slaves. Even Great Britain, which had taken halting steps toward full emancipation in the late 18th century, did not effectively end all slavery in the empire until 1837.

We could possibly point to Norway and Denmark as the first two countries to halt participation in the transatlantic slave trade (effective 1803); however, Denmark still allowed slavery in its colonies until 1848. We might also note France, whose revolutionary government briefly outlawed slavery, only to see its return under Napoleon.

A successful revolution

But clearly, of all the places in the world with well-entrenched, industrial-scale slavery, Haiti (originally, the French Colony of Saint-Domingue) is one of the first, if not the first, in which immediate and permanent emancipation took place. And the African slaves did it themselves. In The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist describes how the revolution started: read more »


Who are the true Muslims in these scenarios?

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by Neil Godfrey

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Scene One:  

At least two thousand worshippers, proclaiming, “There is no God but God; the religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” attended the rally and then descended from the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount] to the wall, setting fire to Jewish prayer books and other devotional items. . . . .

Friday prayers [the following week] began inauspiciously. The khatib, or preacher, entered. He was attired, as usual, in the traditional green cloak worn by Muslim prelates in Jerusalem. As was also typical, he was preceded by a kavass (guard), who loudly struck the ground with his stave to announce the start of the service. What was atypical was the drawn sword that the khatib ostentatiously displayed. Sheikh Sa’ad el Din mounted the pulpit. After praising and thanking God, he called upon the faithful to defend Islam from the Jews and their plots to seize the Noble Sanctuary. “If we give way an inch to the Jews in regard to their demands at the Wailing Wall, he inveighed, 

they will ask for the Mosque of Aqsa; if we give them the Mosque of Aqsa they will demand the Dome of the Rock; if we give them the Dome of the Rock they will demand the whole of Palestine, and having gained the whole of Palestine they will proceed to turn us Arabs out of our country. I ask you now to take the oath of God the Great to swear by your right hand that you will not hesitate to act when called upon to do so, and that you will, if need be, fight for the Faith of the Holy Places to death. 

The packed congregants raised their hands in unison and swore this pledge. “Then go,” the sheikh instructed them, “pounce upon your enemies and kill that you in doing so may obtain Paradise.” . . . . 

Shouting, “The country is our country and the Jews are our dogs,” and, “The religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” the Arabs descended on the quarter with sticks, clubs, swords, and a handful of rifles. The Arab police again mutinied to join the onslaught, at the end of which twenty-nine Jews lay dead and forty-three injured. . . .

(Hoffman 2015, pp. 29-30)

read more »


2015-08-12

“On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne”

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by Neil Godfrey

If every time we mentioned women to a friend he started talking about their breasts, we’d be entitled to think that this was all he was interested in when it comes to women. The same goes for Coyne (and Harris’s) almost exclusive focus on religious beliefs in the context of Islamist terrorism.

Dan Jones on his blog The Philosopher In The Mirror has responded to Jerry Coyne’s little diatribe against an unpublished communication of mine in which I expressed some dismay that a highly educated academic such as himself (along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) reject scholarly research into today’s problems with terrorism and Islamic violence. What concerns me is the way Coyne and Dawkins have exploited their very public status (well deserved for their fields of expertise) to fan public ignorance and bigotry with their ill-informed commentary. Coyne has routinely denied me space on his blog to express this criticism so I wrote him the following:

Jerry, what concerns me about the various statements made by yourself along with Dawkins and Harris is that they are not informed by specialist scholarship — sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists et al — in Islamic and terrorist studies. Rather, they seem to be fueled by visceral reactions without the benefit of broader understanding and knowledge that comes from scholarly investigations into these phenomena. It almost appears to some of us that your criticisms are willfully ignorant of the scholarship. I find these visceral responses coming from trained scientists difficult to understand.

Jerry in response chose not to reply personally or to post my concerns among his comments section but made them the topic of a blog post with his reply as follows:

What “scholarship” that people like Godfrey and Robert Pape have mentioned or produced has completely ignored what the terrorists say about their own motivations in favor of blaming colonialism—something that self-flagellating liberals in the West love to do. (Not, of course, that the U.S. is completely blameless in oppressing and attacking the Middle East, but neither are we the sole cause of extreme Islamic terrorism.) As I once asked one of these blame-the-West apologists, “What would it take to convince you that some Muslim terrorists are actually motivated by religion?” Clearly the terrorists’ own words don’t count: the “scholars” claim to know better. This unfounded psychologizing clearly shows their motivations.

Jerry flatly declined my subsequent request to post a reply on his blog so I was pleased when a reader alerted me to a more prominent and accomplished writer taking up the cause with On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne. He begins:

So now it’s my time to get into the water – and hopefully clean it up a bit.

The full response of Dan Jones is well worth taking time to read. I post here just a few excerpts. (Bolding is my own.) read more »


2015-08-11

Towards Understanding Morality – another step?

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post brought us to the point of explaining different moral perspectives in terms of different relational models (and broad themes of ethics and foundations). For example, marriages have been (and in places still are) understood within the framework of Authority relations. The wife remained under the authority of her father or more generally of the males of her family, or else under the authority of her husband.

How moral views are determined by relational models

Western marriages have seen an evolution from this model to an Equality matching framework where the wife is understood to have equal rights with her husband and the husband has an obligation to share responsibilities (e.g. child minding, housework) with her equally. In other cultures Equality matching has seen the bartering and selling of wives for goods (e.g. thirty pigs) considered to be of equivalent value.

Where the Authority Ranking model has been replaced by a Communal Sharing one some wives complain that their work is not appreciated. The “not keeping tabs” of who owes what is thought to have resulted in their efforts being taken for granted. We also see the Rational-Legal model at work where contracts are signed at the outset of a marriage to clarify processes with respect to children and property in the event of the marriage not lasting.

In each of these relational models the different treatments of the wife are understood to be perfectly moral. What is right and wrong depends on the relational framework through which one views the “resources” in question. Morality rules. One cannot say that either trading a wife for thirty pigs or or obliging the married woman to continue living with her family is “immoral” in the minds of those who follow these customs. read more »


2015-08-10

Towards Understanding How Morality Works

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by Neil Godfrey

We are not the only social animals with rules of behaviour we must follow or risk some form of punishment but our moral systems are surely the most complex. How does it all work? I’d like to think that we can figure it out enough to help us understand what’s going on when two sides are at loggerheads, each convinced of its own moral stance while accusing the other of amorality or immorality. How is it that we are so divided over what’s right and wrong on questions of race, religion, the poor, criminal punishment, war and history and what is it that brings about such irreconcilable convictions?

The Golden Rule
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. (Confucius)
Do to others what you want them to do to you. (Jesus)
The Categorical Imperative
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. (Immanuel Kant)

We’ve heard that some form of the Golden Rule is known in many cultures but as Steven Pinker points out in Better Angels,

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative.

Life is more complex to allow this to be the sole guide. In Brown’s list of human universals we find proscriptions against murder, rape, incest between mother and son and stinginess. After that we veer into increasingly rough and tumble terrain. In one community a woman can be purchased to become a man’s wife for a number of pigs. That custom is as moral, as legitimate, as a land purchase. In fact, selling land according to some communities can be a capital crime.

The Golden Rule and Categorical Imperative can have radically different applications in different cultures.

So what is morality all about? To complete Pinker’s quote:

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations):

  • betraying, exploiting or subverting a coalition;
  • contaminating oneself or a community;
  • defying or insulting a legitimate authority;
  • harming someone without provocation;
  • taking a benefit without paying the cost;
  • peculating funds or abusing prerogatives.

(Pinker 2011, p. 628. My formatting in all quotations)

What interests me are those “relational models (or ethics or foundations)” said to be at the core of our moral sense. My source is for most part Steven Pinker’s introduction to them (2011).

Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder has concluded that across every society humanity’s moral norms revolve around one of three common themes: the ethics of divinity, of community and of autonomy.

Divinity Community Autonomy
The world is composed of a divine essence, portions of which are housed in bodies that are part of god. The world is a collection of tribes, clans, families, institutions, guilds and other coalitions. The social world is composed of individuals.
Purpose of morality is to protect this spirit from degradation and contamination. People do not have right to do what they want with their soul-container bodies. Obligation to avoid polluting body with impure sex, food, other physical pleasures. (Underlies moralization of disgust and valorization of purity and asceticism. Morality is equated with duty, respect, loyalty, interdependence. Purpose of morality is to allow them to exercise their choices and protect them from harm.

.

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2015-08-08

The Other Side of My Cult Experience

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by Neil Godfrey

ambassador1

The decline and demolition of Ambassador College, once the prize jewell of the Worldwide Church of God (From la.curbed.com}

A number of my critics have seized upon the fact that quite some years ago I was a member of the Armstrong cult, the Worldwide Church of God usually to indicate that I am therefore by nature some sort of unreasoning fanatic. The inference appears to be that just about anything I have written or done should be interpreted as evidence of a fundamentally immoral and psychologically damaged individual. This was certainly the message Maurice Casey sought to convey in his final book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? Others (e.g. West, Crossley, McGrath, Hoffmann) have uncritically leaped in to praise Casey for his “research” into the biographical details of people such as myself, failing to notice that in my case, at least, that he relied upon nothing more than a small section of an old web post I had composed for a very particular audience of fellow ex-cultists for the purpose of offering encouragement to other ex-members who had been through the same experiences. Had Casey’s readers turned to his source they would have seen (had they wished to see it) that I wrote much else that refuted some of Casey’s own selective reading.

But here’s the point I want to make in this post. I was expelled from the cult. More than once, actually.

I was kicked out in the end for going public with my questions about its teachings and its practices. Critical thinking, research into “the other side” of those things the Church disagreed with, led me to see that the Church and its leaders were very ignorant not only with respect to history, psychology, but even in the Bible itself. R. Joseph Hoffmann has said that I am merely trying to “rewrite” my experience with the cult but that is his own wishful thinking. I cannot rewrite the fact that I was kicked out, excommunicated, with my name read out in all the churches as members were being warned to shun me now that I was in the “bond of Satan”. read more »


2015-08-07

Better Angels of Our Nature

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by Neil Godfrey

angelsReflections on having completed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. . . .

By the time I had completed the seventh chapter of Better Angels I began to feel my existence was somehow in a surreal place. Compared with most lives throughout human history mine has been fantastically lucky and overwhelmingly privileged. The pain that follows reminders and expanded awareness of just how cruel so much of human existence has been inevitably leaves some sense of guilt and a need to to do more to justify or repay the privilege of my life to date.

Pinker helps readers appreciate just how fortunate we are to be living in the ongoing momentum of the Enlightenment where the seeds of our humanistic and scientific values were planted. (Those who argue that the Enlightenment gave birth to Hitler and the Holocaust and other modern degradations are flat ignorant — Pinker describes the charges as “ludicrous, if not obscene” — since such movements were in fact a reaction against Enlightenment values.) Our moral and rights revolutions, the growth of “liberal” values, humanistic concerns and reactions against cruelty to slaves, children, other races and classes, democratic movements, human rights of liberty and equality, workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, care for the environment — it’s been an incredible moment of history.

All of this has been accompanied by scientific and technological understanding, burgeoning education and even advances in our collective ability to reason and understand — all without the would-be diversions and false-leads of dogma and religion.

Pinker does not mention it, but what we witnessed early this century when millions of people came out into the streets all around the world to protest against the threat of an imminent invasion of Iraq was surely a most significant milestone in human history. Today there is even international outrage over the single killing of a lion for sport. We do live in the most amazing times.  read more »


2015-08-06

Possible Discovery of Mary Magdalene’s House

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by Neil Godfrey

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

A Catholic priest decided to build a Christian retreat in Galilee and was required by Israeli law to check for remains of archaeological interest first. By pure chance (but we know God was the one behind it, of course) Father Juan Solana then unearthed the first synagogue in that region to be discovered from the first century period. We are not told how it was dated to the first century or whether it was closer to the second century end or the BCE end, or how we know it was a synagogue, but no doubt such details will quickly follow.

Some sceptical scholars till now had argued that the absence of synagogue buildings in the Galilee from the time of Jesus was easily explained by simply understanding that when the gospels tell us of Jesus preaching in synagogues they meant he was preaching in group gatherings in homes and other private dwellings. This discovery finally puts well-deserved dirt on the faces of those sceptics.

And there’s a bowl they discovered, too, 2000 years old so of course we must seriously accept the very real possibility that Jesus himself washed his hands in it. Accordingly it is now a holy relic.

The volunteers on the dig all pray before they start work so we can be confident they have divine guidance in all that they find and interpret.

They’ve even discovered what sounds very much like a veritable Jesus-miracle-working well: read more »


2015-08-05

Various readings and random thoughts

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by Neil Godfrey

A few remarks on a small slice of what I’ve been reading lately…..

A most positive blog-post appeared on James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix a little while ago: Temper Your Criticism With Kindness. Perhaps this is a sign of a welcome rapprochement up ahead. :-) (But sadly not everyone in the field of biblical studies seems to have taken this advice to heart.)

I found myself welcoming the title of a blog post by Peter Leithart, All Theology is Public Theology, and was hopeful of finding arguments to engage the public more openly with the full gamut of the biblical studies field. Unfortunately, the post limited itself to engaging with the sheep well secured within in the fold.  read more »


2015-08-04

Miscellaneous and (a very few) updates

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by Neil Godfrey

Many who follow Richard Carrier’s blog will know by now that D.M. Murdock/Acharya S is facing a very serious cancer diagnosis and has appealed for help.

Ben Smith (a fellow amateur) has written a lengthy essay on gospel genre at the Biblical Criticism and History Forum. In off-line discussions a little while ago I got the impression we had similar ideas on the topic. I have sometimes wondered if there was a “Scripture genre” to which the Gospels sought to conform. Ben appears to have explored this question in depth. I look forward to reading his essay and responding.

Scholar Gary Habermas has made the electronic copy of his updated book open access. Evidence for the Historical Jesus can be downloaded on his site. Another work by Habermas (one written in conjunction with Michael Licona) sets out The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Only a few days ago I received my hard copy of Licona’s 700 page tome, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical ApproachThe reason I ordered it was because I was blown away by reviews informing me that Licona was on top of the standard historical methods used by mainsteream historians in history (non-biblical) departments and had applied these normative methods to argue that Jesus really was resurrected. I could not resist a peak at the introduction and opening chapter (I cannot afford to break my promise to myself to finish Pinker’s Better Angels before undertaking another major read.) Licona cites several works on historical method I have fortunately read and still have with me, so I was able to confirm that he seems at times to fall into a trap of semantic confusion — or maybe I will find out I was mistaken when I give it my full attention.

Speaking of Pinker’s book, I have almost completed it now and am intrigued by his point about the different relationships between highly abstract/more concrete thinking on moral reasoning. I am wondering if there is any applicability to the less nuanced understandings of some of the New Atheists (for example) of religion — and this returns us to Hector Avalos and his anticipation of a “second wave” of “new atheists” from the field of biblical studies. (Sure, biblical scholars are better placed to offer informed criticisms of the Bible but there is a real social divide over attitudes towards religion and faith more generally that transcends a need for literacy in any particular holy book.)

For those interested in the Creationist or Intelligent Design phenomenon and who love to read enjoyable prose you will not regret checking out the new post at Otagosh: Red in Claw and (von) Fange.

Tim has added a plugin to check for broken links on Vridar and I’ve been pretty horrified to see how bad the site has been in that respect. I’ve finally got the number of broken links in actual posts down to 40 — I think. Most of those are (only) images for illustration and links to the now moved Internet Infidels forum. Someone at the II forum is looking into the possibility of finding a solution for my old links. Their new site is http://talkfreethought.org/

But something weird is happening as I try to fix some of these links. At times it seems the entire post goes into “draft” mode or even the “trash”. When I retrieve it it gets sent out to Facebook and other sites as if it’s a new post when in fact it’s usually several years old!

 

More to follow.

 


2015-08-03

Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization

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by Neil Godfrey

[Updated UTC 7 am, 3rd Aug, with The post-deluge stories of the Greeks … . . .]

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)

Troy_Babel

I love the way Old Testament books come alive as part and parcel of a long forgotten ancient world when I read other ancient writings expressing the same ideas and stories most of us in the “Christian world” have only ever known from the Bible. Reading Plato’s Laws brings home just how pre-modern and irrelevant the Bible is for today’s world — apart from vestigial myths and sacred beliefs a few modern institutions seek to preserve for various reasons.

Take the quaint way Genesis identifies precisely who was responsible for the invention of each of the civilized arts and crafts:

Kayin . . . became the builder of a city . . . 

Ada bore Yaval,
he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

His brother’s name was Yuval,
he was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe.

And Tzilla bore as well — Tuval-Kayin,
burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron. (Genesis 4:17, 20-22, Everett Fox translation — primary intent of this translation is to capture the flavour of the Hebrew language. All Genesis quotations in this post are from this translation.)

Plato informs us (book 3 of Laws) that the ancient Greeks likewise had their eponymous inventors of the arts and crafts of civilization:

Cleinias For it is evident that the arts were unknown during ten thousand times ten thousand years. And no more than a thousand or two thousand years have elapsed since the discoveries of Daedalus, Orpheus and Palamedes – since Marsyas and Olympus invented music, and Amphion the lyre – not to speak of numberless other inventions which are but of yesterday. 

Athenian Have you forgotten, Cleinias, the name of a friend who is really of yesterday? 

Cleinias I suppose that you mean Epimenides

Compare the reminder left to us by Hyginus: read more »